A quiet revolution is happening in America. It’s not a revolution fueled by anger. It’s a peaceful revolution, being led by ordinary citizens: teachers in our public schools; nurses and doctors in hectic emergency rooms, clinics, and hospitals; counselors and social workers in tough neighborhoods; military leaders in the midst of challenging conflicts; and many others across our nation. This revolution is supported by the work of scientists and researchers from some of the most prominent colleges and universities in America, such as the University of Wisconsin, Stanford, UCLA, the University of Miami, Emory, Duke, and Harvard, to name just a few.
At the core of this revolution is mindfulness.
Put simply, mindfulness is about finding ways to slow down and pay attention to the present moment—which improves performance and reduces stress. It’s about having the time and space to attend to what’s right in front of us, even though many other forces are trying to keep us stuck in the past or inviting us to fantasize or worry about the future. It’s about a natural quality each of us possesses, and which we can further develop in just a few minutes a day.
I started a daily mindfulness practice a few years ago and immediately began to appreciate its practical benefits in my everyday life. It quiets the mind. It helps you harness more of your energy. It increases your focus and allows you to relax and pay better attention to what you’re doing and to those around you. My football coaches would have loved it. It’s the kind of performance enhancer any athlete would be eager to have. And it’s definitely all-natural.
Like many who have tasted the benefits of increased focus, decreased stress, and a quieter mind, I was motivated to share it with my family and friends. Given my work as a United States Congressman, I was also motivated to see its benefits shared on a much larger scale. I recognized its potential to help transform core institutions in America—schools, hospitals, the military, and social services. I felt that this simple practice could help my constituents face the many stressful challenges of daily life. The pain of war. Economic insecurity. The frustrations of being sick or taking care of sick relatives in a broken health-care system. The challenge of teaching children to pay attention and be kind to themselves and others as they swim in a world of distraction and aggression.
I wrote my new book, A Mindful Nation, to promote the values of slowing down, taking care of ourselves, being kind, and helping each other. It seems to me that if we embrace these values individually, it will benefit us collectively. And our country will be a little bit better off as a result.
In writing my book, I met many heroes doing mindfulness work in this country—people with a collective and powerful vision for America. And this vision is contagious, because it’s based on a deep concern for the well-being of their fellow men and women. Their research and innovative approaches provide us not with just hope for a better world, but with an alternative vision that moves us forward—together.
A few of these heroes are particularly close to my heart because they are working with people with addiction and mental health issues, young people, and expectant parents, and by doing so are building social capital—the economic value that results from taking care of one another and working together to create a healthier society.
As co-chair of the Congressional Addiction, Treatment, and Recovery Caucus, I’ve had the opportunity to learn just how much damage addiction is doing to American communities. So the first person I want to mention here was a pioneer in the study and treatment of addiction.
Alan Marlatt died an untimely death in March of 2011 before I had a chance to look him up. Director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, Alan also served on the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse. As founder of Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention, Alan became the father of a movement to apply mindfulness techniques as part of drug treatment, and now drug counselors across the country are beginning to help substance abusers get clean and stay clean with the help of mindfulness practices.
Of course, many addictions find their source in mental health problems. And mindfulness is also making important inroads in the treatment of many mental health concerns, from depression to social anxiety to obsessive-compulsive disorder.
There are heroes putting this research into action on the streets, helping at-risk youth turn their lives around. Vinny Ferraro and Chris McKenna at the Mind Body Awareness Project (MBA) in Oakland, California, are two tough dudes bringing mindfulness to youth in a postindustrial city with a high rate of gang activity. They do work in juvenile halls, detention camps, and at-risk schools in California, serving young people with histories of violence, substance abuse, and deep trauma.
I visited these guys in Oakland during one of their training sessions for counselors. They have an impressive ability to cut through the rhetoric and gamesmanship that young adults (and all of us at times) put forward. As Vinny says, they get “super-duper real” with the kids. Through mindfulness techniques, the MBA counselors are able to let 12 and 13 year olds see for the first time that it’s okay to be who they are, and that they don’t have to belong to a gang to attain self-fulfillment.
One child in “juvie,” hardened by all the deaths of friends and family to drugs and violence, hid behind a rock-hard exterior. That is, until a session with an MBA counselor. The counselor simply let him talk and then allowed a long silence during which the counselor began to cry, and the young boy himself began to cry, prompting an older boy in the group to say, “It’s okay. Men cry.”
The brothers Atman and Ali Smith, along with Andres Gonzalez, run the Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland. They connect with the most at-risk kids by teaching them hip-hop, but simultaneously they are integrating yoga and urban gardening into the kids’ lives. The kids are changing before their very eyes, and Baltimore is a better city because of the foundation’s work.
Yoga helped me synchronize my mind and body and build resiliency when I was young. So seeing these kids sitting on yoga mats practicing mindfulness, I immediately wanted to replicate the program in cities across the nation.
Johns Hopkins did a preliminary study that suggested that the work they’re doing had a positive impact on problematic responses to stress—including rumination (continually thinking about the same thing), emotional arousal (being overly reactive emotionally), and intrusive thoughts (having thought patterns that create ongoing anxiety). The university is now funding a larger-scale study of the program.
Gina Biegel, a licensed marriage and family therapist in her mid-thirties with boundless energy and inspiration, is doing great work in the area of teen stress reduction, in a program she calls Stressed Teens. She has adapted Jon Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program for teens and is arming them with the skills they need to keep themselves balanced in a world that can be difficult and complicated for young people.
These people and many others all over America and the world are changing the way we approach chronic poverty and disconnection. These programs reveal to our children that a negative and dangerous life is not their only option. With mindfulness skills they see that they have choices and the wherewithal to overcome the adversity in their lives. As these programs grow and lead to deep, systemic change, our country will be a safer and healthier place because of it.
Mindful about compassion
A mindful nation is about recognizing that we are all connected: we are in this together. At present, we feel divided and scared, and have been made to believe that independence means we are totally on our own. But our experiences—as individuals and as a country—tell a different story. We know that when we join together, work together, and care about each other, our freedom actually increases. Real independence emerges when we know how to support each other. The Declaration of Independence was a communal act.
When Karen Armstrong, the great religious scholar, is asked what unites all our major faiths, she responds, “Compassion.” Our evolutionary psychologists tell us the same. And Charles Darwin, the man often misquoted to justify the brutality of capitalism, wrote, “Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic [i.e., empathetic] members, would flourish.”
The every-man-for-himself model cuts against what all of our great religions have taught us; it also goes against what our great scientists are teaching us, and it denies what we know in our hearts. It’s time for compassion to come front and center in our public discourse. We need to get away from worshipping at the altar of profit and markets as if they were flawless deities. If we care about each other, invest in each other, and put the well-being of human beings first, we will soften the rough edges of the market system and we all will profit more.
Mindfulness can help us slow down enough, and pay attention enough, to see clearly the basic human truth Darwin stated. We’re not going to get this from the business talk shows: they will tell us that if we buy the right stock, we’ll flourish. We won’t get it from the news channels: they’ll tell us that if we have a certain political view, we’ll vote the right people into office, and then we will flourish as never before. We won’t get it from the commercials telling us that the latest product will bring us deep satisfaction. We’ll get it by slowing down and seeing how powerful compassion can be.